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Air Force Proposes F-35 Fighters Be Stationed at Tyndall

An F-35A Lightning II taxis before takeoff to participate in simulated defensive counter air operations Dec. 8, 2016, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo/Peter Thompson)
An F-35A Lightning II taxis before takeoff to participate in simulated defensive counter air operations Dec. 8, 2016, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo/Peter Thompson)

The U.S. Air Force plans to refurbish Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, in hopes of stationing three squadron's worth of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at the base in the near future, officials announced Friday.

The service is recommending that Congress use "supplemental funding for rebuilding the base to prepare to receive the F-35 fighter at the north Florida installation," officials said in a release.

"We have recommended that the best path forward to increase readiness and use money wisely is to consolidate the operational F-22s formerly at Tyndall in Alaska, Hawaii and Virginia, and make the decision now to put the next three squadrons of F-35s beyond those for which we have already made decisions at Tyndall," said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

The move would also help boost the number of F-22 aircraft that have been reassigned from Tyndall to other bases amid Tyndall's reconstruction. Squadrons may have the opportunity to plus-up their operational F-22 squadrons from "21 to 24 assigned aircraft," the release said, which may help the stifling fleet.

In July, the Government Accountability Office said the F-22 is frequently underutilized, mainly due to maintenance challenges and fewer opportunities for pilot training, as well as the fleet's inefficient organizational structure.

If Congress approves the decision and supplemental funding is allocated, the F-35 could be based at Tyndall beginning in 2023, Wilson said. The service added that basing already announced in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin "will not be affected by this decision."

The Air Force in recent weeks announced it would relocate its Tyndall F-22 stealth fighter fleet, dividing the aircraft between Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, after Hurricane Michael severely damaged the base in October.

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Tyndall was home to the 325th Fighter Wing, comprised of two F-22 Raptor squadrons. One was operational and one was training. Eglin Air Force Base in Florida -- roughly 60 miles away from Tyndall in Florida's panhandle -- has accepted some of Tyndall's F-22s and T-38 Talon trainers. The Raptor schoolhouse for pilots in training has also been relocated to Eglin.

The U.S. Air Force in recent months has also been weighing the addition of another F-35 stealth fighter squadron at Eglin, possibly as soon as 2020.

The plus-up of the fifth-gen fighters would give additional resources to the busiest Air Force F-35 training wing, providing pilots necessary, enhanced equipment currently lacking in the pipeline, Col. Paul Moga, commander of the fighter wing, told Military.com in October.

Whether or not the decision to potentially move more F-35s to Tyndall will end up shifting the Eglin boost is too soon to tell, an Air Force official told Military.com on Friday.

The latest news comes as the F-35 has entered its formal operational test phase.

The Joint Program Office and the aircraft's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corps., announced Thursday all three F-35 variants belonging to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will be field tested "for the purposes of determining the weapons systems' operational effectiveness and operational suitability for combat."

"The approval to formally begin Initial Operational Test & Evaluation demonstrates the confidence our customers have in the maturity of the F-35's design and performance," Lockheed spokesman Michael Friedman said in a statement Thursday.

"Formal IOT&E will test the system and identify areas for improvement in the most stressing operationally representative environments, and is expected to be complete late summer of 2019," Joint Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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